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You can’t talk about ’90s hip-hop without mentioning Pete Rock. Digging basement-deep into his collection of jazz and soul records, working his sample-chopping magic on the SP-1200, and emerging with a gritty, groovy, gorgeous sound that was sophisticated beyond his years (and most of his peers), the Soul Brother Number One was a main ingredient in the Mecca of hip-hop’s golden reign. The guy made “They Reminisce Over You”—one of the most beautiful and timeless beats ever—for Pete’s sake.
That’s only the tip of Pete Rock’s catalog, though. His long list of collaborations is littered with legends like Nas, Common, Run-D.M.C., Big L, and Rakim, and that’s not including his show-stealing remixes for the likes of Public Enemy (“Shut ’Em Down”), Jeru the Damaja (“Can’t Stop the Prophet”), and House of Pain (“Jump Around”). The Soul Brother even got on the mic himself—as one-half of the duo Pete Rock and CL Smooth, who enjoyed a brief but brilliant run between ’91 and ’94, and on solo albums like NY’s Finest and Soul Survivor.
Pete Rock is certainly a survivor, even if he thinks hip-hop has lost some of its soul. In recent years, he’s worked with Smoke DZA, Westside Gunn, and The LOX while remaining an in-demand DJ around the world (he was spinning records on Marley Marl’s WBLS radio show as a teenager, after all). And then there’s his influence on fellow greats like Kanye West, 9th Wonder, and the late J Dilla, who named Pete Rock as his favorite producer.
In the latest installment of Beat Break, we got on the phone with Pete Rock to reminisce over five of his biggest songs.
Pete Rock & CL Smooth — “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” (1992)
“Trouble T Roy [a member of Heavy D & The Boyz who died in a freak accident in 1990] was a great, close friend of mine that lived three houses down from me. Mount Vernon, where we’re from, is a close-knit community, four square miles wide and long. He meant the world to us all. When he died, we poured our hearts into the music and dedicated what we thought was one of the best creations ever made in hip-hop.
“I found [the Tom Scott record] in the record store when I was digging with Large Professor. He knew about the record. I actually worked on some of it at his house and used his sampler, but then I took it back to mine and worked on it. CL already had lyrics written for it but we needed a beat to match, and I thought that beat was perfect once I heard him rap to it.
“[The saxophone sample] hit me right in the chest, right in the soul. That spoke to me and made me get more curious about the song, so I played it from beginning to end and I heard more things that I wanted to bring forth in the beat.
“[I realized how special the song was] probably a couple weeks after we mixed the song and I saw how effective it was and how it made people feel, emotionally. That’s when I knew.
“Where does 'T.R.O.Y.' rank in the Pete Rock catalog? Number one!”
Run-D.M.C. — “Down With the King” ft. Pete Rock & CL Smooth (1993)
Sample: James Rado “Where Do I Go?”
“This one started through Eddie F and the Untouchables. How it all came together was basically through the production company I was with. The work that I was doing at the time got me noticed and got me the gig.
"At first, I didn’t think the song was going to get made because I didn’t think that Russell [Simmons] and those guys would like it. I got kinda down about it. Then Jam Master Jay came to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to work on this thing.’ He got my spirits up again and we started working on it. He actually played the drum pattern and helped me make the beat. Once we got the drums going, I found the sample that I felt might have fit in, and it worked.
"The more work I did to the beat, the better the situation became. I think the more you work on a beat, the better it starts to sound. I’ve always felt if you don’t have good music and you can’t make a good hit record, it’s senseless."
"Once everybody laid their lyrics down, and the scratching and the hook and everything, it was just like, ‘Woah!’ The album [Back From Hell] that Run-DMC had put out at the time didn't do so well, so that song was the perfect opportunity to say, ‘Hey, here’s something new and here’s what’s going on right now in hip-hop that may fit you guys.’ And it did.
“I think the Pete Rock and CL edition was the icing on the cake. People already knew who Run-D.M.C. was; we were the new guys coming in that had a sound that no one had and it worked with Run-D.M.C. At the same time, they had just graduated from one sound to another. It was a movement in the ’90s, a huge movement of how music changed.
"Now that I think about it, I can’t even believe what I was doing back then at such a young age. Even before 22."
Nas — “The World Is Yours” (1994)
Sample: Ahmad Jamal Trio “I Love Music”
“What a great collaboration that was right there. We were all excited about Nas as an MC, so when Large Professor made that call to me, we made it happen!
"We arranged a day for Nas to come over to my house and I started playing beats. He heard that beat and he kinda froze in his steps. He was humming the hook to himself and saying to me, ‘Yeah, yeah, this is it right here. This is the one.’ He started telling me about the hook and how he wanted me to sing it. I tried it out, man. I didn’t want to sing it at first but I did, and it turned out to be one of my favorite Nas songs.
“It’s easy to [listen to the entire song that you're sampling] when you have a great musician to listen to! Ahmad Jamal is awesome, so it’s not going to hurt you to listen to the whole thing. That album is actually a really, really dope album. I was just sat there in a trance! And I heard so much on that album it’s not even funny.
"But that one right there, it was just amongst a lot of the other stuff that I heard on that same album that I made beats off. I didn’t think anything of it. It was just, ‘Alright, that’s a beat I made.’ And Nas liked it. I couldn’t see no one else rapping on that beat, to be honest with you.
“It was awesome to see [Nas] conquer the music like he did, with the talent that he has, the voice, the cadence, the flow, the lyrical content that he spoke on, the storytelling format. It was just beautiful.
“It was heavy competition [working on the same album with DJ Premier, Q-Tip, and Large Professor]. We were all friends but we knew when it was time to do what we had to do, it was about competing with each other. But we used Nas to do it, if you want to look at it in a fun way."
The Notorious B.I.G. — “Juicy (Original)” (1994)
Sample: Mtume “Juicy Fruit”
“I made the ‘Juicy’ beat like every other producer who hears a dope sample and wants to recreate it. It wasn’t even a big deal. I didn’t even put that aside for Big. I was going to give him some other shit, some other beats that I felt would fit him. He wasn’t even really interested in doing nothing like a ‘Juicy’ record with me, he wanted to do some fly shit!
"And that’s what we was about to do, but we lost him. I felt really bad because it was like, ‘Damn, here I am getting ready to work with him and then…' That never happened. But he did come to my house with Puff and listened to beats and watched me make beats. So I got that experience with him. He was there when I made ‘In the Flesh,’ off the Pete Rock & CL Smooth Main Ingredient album.
“What happened was, when he came over, I was working on that beat but not for him. I had something going and it was the ‘Juicy Fruit’ drums only. But when he came over, I pressed stop on the drum machine and I started playing other beats! But when Puff heard ‘Juicy,’ he thought it was a great idea. It’s all good, though."
JAY-Z & Kanye West — “The Joy” ft. Pete Rock, Kid Cudi & Charlie Wilson (2010)
“Oh, that was an old beat. [I made that] in ’97. I gave it to Busta [Rhymes] but he didn’t use it, so I gave it to Kanye, he liked it and put JAY-Z on it.
“[Hawaii] was my first time meeting Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, John Legend and his wife. That was a real cool trip. I had a lot of fun with Kanye. We laid down about eight beats, but out of the eight he narrowed it down to one, which ended up being ‘The Joy.’
"I was in my hood in Mount Vernon, driving down the block [when I heard the song]. I got a phone call from Young Guru [JAY-Z’s engineer], he hit me up and said, ‘Yo Pete, listen to this.’ I couldn’t really hear too well ’cause it was outside in the summertime, so I pulled the car over and rolled the windows up. I was like, ‘Who’s that?’ He was like, ‘Listen, listen!’ He played it again and I was like, ‘Is that JAY-Z?’ And that’s how I found out.
“I don’t know [why me and JAY-Z haven't worked on anything else], man! I always ask myself that question. But hey, I’m open to it if he wants to do something now. Real talent doesn’t diminish.
“[Mine and Kanye's relationship] really started around then. We gelled for the first time in Hawaii. But I was told from D-Dot, The Madd Rapper, that he brought Kanye around one time in the ’90s to a session that I was doing. But I had no idea who he was; he wasn’t Kanye West back then. I was like, ‘Wow, see how small the world is.’
"People pick up inspiration from different producers. That’s the same thing with me: I used to be a quiet kid hanging around in the background, but nobody knew it was Pete Rock getting ready to rise!"